Twenty-seven Brooklyn College students stood in a semi-circle at the Brooklyn College Listening Project’s end-of-semester celebration, each transforming themselves through words into the person that they interviewed for their oral history:

“As a child, I was,” said one, starting off with one of the questions they asked:

“Adventurous,” said a second.

“Anti-social,” said a third.

“Friendly,” said another.

“Troublesome,” said the next.

“Clumsy,” said another….

“When I was younger, I was a ladies’ man. I was just mad cool. Everybody thought I was cool,” said the last.

photo by Philip F. Napoli

And with that, the audience laughed. The students were members of Prof. Madeline Fox’s Sociology of Childhood course, who had interviewed mothers, fathers, sisters, husbands, friends and others for the course and now they were turning their words into a performance.

They were one part of the celebration on Dec. 7 that closed another semester of the Brooklyn College Listening Project. Prof. Joseph Entin of the American Studies program and the English Department welcomed the audience. “The project was designed to create new links between the college and the borough, to take better advantage of the incredible wisdom of everyday people and to showcase the brilliance of our students ad the community in which we all live—Brooklyn, New York City and beyond.”

Several students presented their oral histories to the larger audience.

Photo by Philip F. Napoli

Najrana Azad spoke about interviewing a friend about the importance of music in her life and what classical music meant for her for Prof. Phil Napoli’s Pop Culture class. But having done oral histories in a number of classes, Azad also talked about the importance of doing oral histories in general. “Interviews allow you to experience the lives of other people…you see things that you wouldn’t ordinarily see,” she said. ‘I get to experience what this person experiences.”

Montana Durieux interviewed her brother-in-law Jeffrey Verna for Prof. Entin’s American Studies class. “At first I didn’t know who to interview but then I thought of Jeffrey,” she said later. “He’s laid back and sociable. Everyone gravitates toward him,” she said.

However, at first when they first sat down to do the interview, both of them were nervous. But then when they started talking, “we started relaxing and forgot about the recorder,” she said.

She shared some excerpts with the audience, his photo filling the screen as she presented some audio clips of Verna, who spoke about what it means to be a black man in American right now:

Zoey Wolfe presented her interview with transgender activist, Justine Carta Hess, who came to New York City from the Philippines. “I found my role models—queer ones– in New York,” she said. “I found what was striking that their self-concepts had been built from the ashes….many of their friends had died from AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s. Or they had also lost people who had killed themselves or been murdered because they were gay.”

The event ended with the performance by the Sociology of Childhood class. Performers and audience members moved chairs back so that the front of the room became a stage. By telling the stories of people who were born in such varied places as Puerto Rico, Palestine, Russia, Florida and the Bronx, the performance created a patchwork quilt of a variety of people’s lives and their childhoods.

They shared who their interviewees looked up to, what a typical day was like, what games they played as children and when they knew they had grown up.

Photo by Philip F. Napoli

“I stopped feeling like a child around 14 years old because that’s when children grow up,” read one Children’s Studies student from the oral history she did. “Girls have to stay more in the house, help the moms clean house. In Albanian culture, if you were the older sister, you care for your little sisters.”

Another student read, “After my bar-mitzvah, after 13-years-old, it’s unbelievable, they said you become like a man. When you are 13, you don’t think about it, but you actually are thinking differently. You’re more serious. Don’t forget, in Israel when you reach 18, you already mandatory you going to the army for three years. So you become a man very quickly.”

Afterwards, students spoke about the challenges and surprises they found doing their oral histories.  Shaden Zaina interviewed her husband who was born in Palestine, who told her about the time when Israeli soldiers came after him and he had to flee to the woods without food and water.  

“Why didn’t you tell me about it before?” she asked him after the interview.

“It’s personal….I barely talked about it with anyone.”

Oral histories sometimes uncover secrets…even ones between husbands and wives.

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